A few short reviews of recent movies that aren't a part of my 1001 Movies project:
"Walk the Line"
I have never watched a biopic that really impressed me, but I find the phenomenon of their popularity really fascinating. It seems to me (and to a number of other commentators) that it speaks to some basic cultural assumptions about mimesis, art, and the craft of acting. Our acclaim for biopics and the actors who impersonate the living or recently deceased implies that the highest achievement of acting is in exact imitation of a model, a reality effect that seeks to ellide the difference between imitation and original but in fact (like the wax models of Madame Tussaud's) only makes us realize that the original is just as plastic and constructed as the fake.
Thus biopics manage to be incredibly effective at the sort of emotional manipulations that many of us seek from film, while somehow making the events seem totally improbable (as in the case of famous, and apparently true-to-life, scene from "Walk the Line" in which Cash proposes to Carter in front of a concert audience). We know that life doesn't obey the laws of narrative progression and closure, which is why there is always so much to be unsatisfactorily summed up in brief textual bursts before the credits can roll. It is incredibly difficult to contain a life within the narrative strictures of Freytag's Pyramid, that famous structure of rising action, climax, falling action and resolution that defined both the well-made play and the melodrama and continues to define mainstream cinema. Lives don't have climaxes, generally speaking, and there is no point of absolute closure. Our lives are so intertwined with other people's continuing narratives, so unrepentant in their rejection of any dramatic unity of action, that even death does not mark the end of most of our life stories. So the biopic is almost always (I can't think of a single exception right now, but perhaps there is one) doomed to either narrative bagginess or the sheen of falsehood and romanticization.
Despite belonging to the genre, and to the equally meandering subgenre of the concert-tour movie (so much less satisfying than its more rebellious cousin, the road trip movie), "Walk the Line" manages to be a very entertaining film, skilled at the emotional manipulations I mentioned earlier. Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter both do (as has been proclaimed throughout the land) uncanny impersonations. I choose that adjective carefully, both because there is something inherently uncanny about the doubling of impersonation (the idea that someone's self can be captured and replicated entirely in the superficial trappings of voice, gesture, clothing), and because there is something oddly ritual or even macabre about resurrecting these two and bolstering their myths in the immediate aftermath of their deaths (the uncanniness of which is not lessened by the fact that both Carter and Cash were apparently intimately involved with the planning of the film and the casting of their doppelgangers).
dir. James Mangold
There appears to be a little bit of a trend right now (ok, "Sin City" and "A History of VIolence" don't make a trend, just a pair) for translating hyperviolent comics to the screen. This trend distinguishes itself (although without the normal positive connotations of that word) by developing a specific mode of hyperbolic acting that is meant to match the iconic image that the original graphic, paper representations convey so well in the stillness of a single frame. Now, many have objected to the excessive, or rather extreme violence in these two films, and I want to make it clear that my frustrated reaction to them had nothing to do with the violence. In fact, I was glad when a violent scene came along, because it provided a break from the consciously atrocious acting. These films gave me the gift of knowing what stereotypical men feel like when they are dragged to romance flicks by their stereotypical girlfriends - I was often DESPERATE for the action to begin. What is remarkable about the bad acting, since it was clearly an aesthetic choice on the part of the directors of both films, is how unironized it was for so many of the actors, particularly since so many of the characters should be conscious of their double lives (Viggo in "A History of Violence," on the one hand, or Michael Madsen in "Sin City," among many others). The aesthetic of "Sin City" was new, indeed, but its unholy fusion of Tim Burton and the noir tradition was hard to laud unreservedly because the actual content of the film contained none of the complexities of noir, its thorny hedge of impassable plot development that evokes the moral confusion of its characters. Morality, for the most part, is disappointing clear in "Sin City." It should even be possible to utter that sentence, but there you have it.
dir. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, with a little soupcon of gory goodness from Quentin Taratino
I'm telling you, allegory is hot right now. "Lost" is dominating the smallscreen, expressionism is having a minor renaissance in museums and theatres, and message boards all over the internet are devoted to reading every trace of our culture with a eye to deep meaning. Into this allegory-hungry world, a world fed on abstract filterings of the news that emphasize the epic battle being waged between good and evil and the impossibility of gray area in between, comes Michael Hanneke's "Cache," a psychological allegory exploring French intellectual guilt about their relationship to Algeria and (more importantly) the Algerians "hidden" in their midst, never fully acknowledged and thus never fully enfranchised. It begins with a mystery: Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) receive a series of videotapes of the outside of their home, and gradually of other familiar, emotionally charged locations. These tapes are accompanied by gory children's drawings, but otherwise no threat is made and no motivation is stated. They are mystified and alarmed, and at this point Haneke focuses on something film has always done well, from "Peeping Tom" to "Blow Up": meditate on the creepiness of its own processes and force the spectator in the dual awkwardness of voyeurism and consciousness of the persistent surveillance which characterizes our culture. Nothing about you is hidden, the tapes say. Nothing can be.
As the film goes on, a new set of concerns emerges, the concerns of political and psychic allegory: Georges becomes convinced that the tapes are coming from an Algerian man (Majid, played by Maurice Benichou) whom, decades before, his parents had tried to adopt. His response to Majid is so disproportionate to the perceived threat (and we remain far from convinced that Majid is responsible for the tapes) that it is clear that Georges is both responding to some larger psychic event and standing in symbolically for a wider cultural phenomenon. "Cache" consciously takes as its subject the twisted workings of social and racial anxiety that "Birth of a Nation" unconsciously represented (in, for instance, its deluded/deluding insistence that black Southerners were keeping whites from voting at the polls). It pays particular attention to the paradoxes that this anxiety creates, the ways in which an oppressive class can convince itself that it is the persecuted, the oppressed, the threatened, as a way both of avoiding guilt and maintaining the status quo.
Though the details of the guilt are specific to France, the workings of social anxiety are obviously relevant to a much wider range of societies at the moment. It can serve as an allegory for any nation using a cult of fear and threat to disguise its own acts of violence and disenfranchisement. This is obviously a complex and timely topic. There is a great deal to be said about it, and I can only wish that Haneke had said more. His film is evocative and blessedly open-ended, but a greater degree of subtlety and complexity in teasing out the layers of allegory would only have enhanced its virtues.
dir. Michael Haneke
"The Phantom of Liberty"
Descriptions of Bunuel's "The Phantom of Liberty" tend to make it sound lofty and intellectually distant: a surrealist masterpiece of non-linearity, it emerged from the idea of a narrative structure that would set up a series of more or less framed and interconnected stories, each of which would be interrupted by its successor just at the moment when it threatened to become really interesting. In fact, this is a tremendously accessible film, in part because we are already familiar with so many of its structures of illogic and satire from Monty Python (whose work "The Phantom of Liberty" closely resembles at times in aesthetic as well as tone) and the less realist ventures of Woody Allen. The two most famous scenes from the film are indeed iconic, hilarious, and disturbing. In one, a professor lectures on subject of pliable, relativistic morality to a class of police officers, giving as an example a dinner party in which the guests sit on toilets while they make idle conversation with one another, occasionally excusing themselves to hurry off to a tiny room where they can surreptitiously wolf down a meal in absolute privacy. In the other, perhaps even more well known, a little girl is pronounced lost by her school and parents, even though she insists that she is standing right there. Shush, they tell her, don't interrupt while the adults are talking. These are the narratives of dreams, held together by a loose but suggestive structure of dream logic, in which narratives dissolve into tangents just at the moment of greatest import, and the symbolic workings of the mind are both overt and complex.
dir. Luis Bunuel
A few short reviews of recent movies that aren't a part of my 1001 Movies project:
I have just started my study of yet another foreign language (this time, Spanish), blazing the way for it to be added to the great language Pangaea (Panlingua?) in my brain. I am now unable to remember a single foreign language with any consistency. Instead I can only form sentences made up of French nouns (none of them the correct gender), Latin verbs and German conjunctions (because I learned German most recently and thus the most common words emerge in that tongue), all given a vaguely Italian pronunciation. I must admit that I learned Old English shortly after my summer of German, and because of the greater similarity between those two than between English and its ancestor, I am afraid they are hopeless entangled in my mind. When I speak to Germans I must sound like a horned-helmet-wearing Rhine-maiden, ready at any moment to lay waste to some villages and flee in my longship (an impression totally out of sync with my meek appearance). I have to wonder what place Spanish will take in this totally incomprehensible linguistic cassoulet. Though mostly nonsensical, my one uber-language does have the wonderful side effect of throwing listeners into confusion and almost totally obscuring my Americanness, which is sometimes useful when traveling in Europe.
At any rate, I have decided to take on Spanish because a playwright who interests me tremendously is from Argentina, and much of her work exists only in Spanish. Rather than take a course, as I have in previous language endeavors, I have decided to undertake this project on my own, accompanied only by the rather-too-advanced-for-me "Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice," from a line of grammar guides that I have found useful for both French and German. This is a questionable choice, to say the least, but I remain optimistic. My masterplan for correcting both my understanding and my totally unfettered pronunciation is to take up a telenovela and follow its progress for weeks and weeks, hopefully someday coming to understand what it is all about. I will let you know how it goes. My only disappointment so far is that the telenovela based (VERY loosely) on "I, Claudius" appears to be over. Sigh.
Apparently Robert Altman also can't resist a nice alliterative title.
We settled down last night for the second in our Warren Beatty double header, Altman's 1971 western (made when he was virtually unknown in Hollywood) "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." This is a different sort of Altman film than what we have come to associate with him: there are no grand ensembles of celebrities, no intricately woven webs of characterization that seem both entirely plot and scornful of narrative. The eccentric philosophy of sound is there, with what little plot advancement there is occurring entirely in stifled, muttered outbursts that melt away before you have truly understood them. The visual fascination with idiosyncratic detail as a building block of character and place-as-character are also there, largely (to my eye at least) unchanged over the years.
"Ah," my boyfriend said as we started the film, "Altman. Another slow meander to a questionable destination." And it is indeed slow going at first. The film concerns a, well, an entrepreneur named McCabe (Beatty) who comes to the fledgling mine town of Presbyterian Church and decides that there is money to be made there in whores, liquor and gambling. He is soon joined by Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), who convinces him that there is more money to be made in high class brothels and bathhouses than in the filthy tents he has set up. They and a few others build an entire town faster than we have understand what is at stake in these events. As far as we can tell at this point, Altman is concerned with asking the really big questions in this film, questions like "How many whores can you fit into a barrel?" and "What if it were a really big barrel?"
I began to think about how both "Short Cuts" and "Nashville" had grown on me over time, going from rather dutiful, lengthy viewing experiences to objects of prolonged intellectual interest to vividly imagistic, almost archetypal myths. Would this happen with "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"? Would distance be necessary for affection or admiration to grow? Then we entered the final twenty minutes of the film. I don't want to ruin this for anyone, although as you know I am not normally in the habit of avoiding spoilers, so I won't go very deeply into it. Suffice it to say that big business interests express a desire to buy out McCabe and Mrs. Miller's holdings in Presbyterian Church, and threaten violence if their offers aren't entertained with sufficient openness. The protagonists' response, and the ramifications of their actions for the town, transform the movie in a fairly revelatory way. The events that ensue involve (at least) one of the cruelest, most senseless murders I have ever seen in a Western, and indeed this murder takes the genre into a new sphere of morality. It occurred to me that it is often the casual cruelty of an individual scene in Altman that transforms the film into something lasting, that lifts it out of the conventions of its genre, scenes like the one in which the fishermen find a corpse in "Short Cuts," but ignore it because they don't want to ruin their vacation.
Roger Ebert has said that of the many great movies that Altman has made, this is the only one that is perfect. I pondered what he could mean by that. Although I enjoyed and admired "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," both "Short Cuts" and "Nashville" interested me a lot more, in part for their intricacy. There is admittedly a lot to admire about the production of this film, which was brilliantly designed and shot in a real town that Altman's team built (and in fact inhabited) outside Vancouver. It is obviously also a tremendously influential film for its genre, leaving its mark with particular indelibility, I now realize, on the dusty frontier amorality of HBO's "Deadwood." I grow more fond of westerns with every movie I see from the genre.
Perhaps by "perfect," Ebert was getting at a rather more fundamental meaning of the word than "flawless." Perhaps he meant the word to connote "complete," for this is one of the most containable of Altman's "great" films, the one with the narrative borders that are the least porous. This is particularly worthy of note because the Altman style is so frequently associated with the opposite of these qualities. It is an aesthetic of imperfection, of incompletion, of expansiveness; of porousness of borders and roughness of edges. In "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," by contrast, pleasure is about coziness and confinement (think of the whores in the barrel, which was in fact a tub in the bathhouse), and fear is about claustrophobia.
"McCabe and Mrs. Miller"
Dir. Robert Altman
Well, the last person besides my boyfriend, who watched it with me this afternoon. It occurred to me, while watching it, that I almost always judge a film more harshly while watching it with my boyfriend, and not merely because he has a more skeptical attitude towards movies than I do. He approaches films with a more analytical eye, or perhaps I should say an analytical eye more attuned to issues of stylistics and construction than to thematics. When I watch a film with him, I become much more aware of the seams, of errors and triumphs of editing, and of the professional processes of acting. He defamiliarizes the narrative for me; suddenly film becomes much more a conscious construction, and much less an overwhelming emotional experience. Which is odd, because he is highly skeptical about applying this sort of analytical gaze to literature.
You probably already know the plot of Arthur Penn's 1967 film, even if you are in fact even more behind on your film canon than I am. It is based on the real story of two 1930s lovers and armed robbers (although honesty might require listing those qualities in the opposite order), Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who captured the attention and to some extent the affection of a nation in thrall to financial depredations of the Depression and eager to see foreclosing banks and big businesses pay. In the film, they meet in Texas, discover Bonnie's ravenous sexual hunger for the excitement of armed robbery, and then in quick succession realize Clyde's talent for satisfying her craving for larceny and his utter inability to respond to her sexual appetite. They acquire several hangers-on along the way, but the most notable is the looming presence of death in their stolen cars and shabby bedsits. This at first unwelcome but increasingly avuncular presence first appears when they pick up a terrified couple and befriend them over an hours-long drive, only to abandon them abruptly when it emerges that the young man (Gene Wilder, who emerges from Zeus's brain fully formed as a comic actor in this his first major movie role) is an undertaker.
For a time, only such a distinctive comic actor as Gene Wilder (who always manages performances at once broad/stagy and highly detailed - is this the definition of a good comic actor?) seems appropriate for the large, stylized acting that Penn demands of his actors in "Bonnie and Clyde." As the film progresses, you settle in to this aesthetic of acting, if less comfortably into the unsettling, abrupt editing style, which seems to evoke the earlier, rougher mode of B-westerns. Would that I could comment on the famous New Wave influences on this film, which might have explained and enhanced these stylistic choices for us, but since I am watching these films out of order in my 1001 Movies project, I have yet to reach its New Wave predecessors. (Curse my infidelity to chronology!!!) I can only promise to return to it when I reach the proper place in the timeline.
The real heart of this film, for us, was not the passion of the love story, nor the innovation of its violence (which include repeated and remarkable references to "Battleship Potemkin," the granddaddy of film violence), but its obsession with celebrity. The film's Bonnie and Clyde, like the real criminals, were not just aware of their public image, they manipulated it through a press which was seldom completely hostile to them, using tactics litarary (Bonnie's mythmaking, pointedly child-like poetry), visual (through pictures which inevitably evoke the ones you get taken at the fair, in different costumes and against different backdrops), and personal (winning over converts one by one on their famous "rides"). They envision themselves (somewhat broadly) in the terms of the myth they build up in the press, as populists wreaking the vengeance of the masses against the rich and powerful.
The most wonderful tensions in the film come when the drive for celebrity comes in conflict with celebrity's handmaiden, death. As Chris Rojek points out in his book "Celebrity," one of the expectations we have of celebrities is that they serve a shamanistic purpose for our increasingly secular culture, undergoing the same "rituals of descent" and abasement that we would otherwise have turned to other symbolic sources to fulfill (messiahs, prophets, gods, priests who would go to the underworld and return). An inevitable characteristic of celebrity is that someone, somewhere, wants to do them harm (sometimes as a way of expressing love), and that we will be there, hungrily watching, as the celebrity is sacrificed, ready to experience the catharsis of mourning for someone we didn't even really know. Bonnie, in particular, is well aware that this sacrifice is the price of celebrity. And she is right - the most famous, oft-cited scene in the movie is the one in which they meet their grisly fate, a scene which inevitably seems smaller in reality than the enormous symbolic place it holds in our culture.
"Bonnie and Clyde"
dir. Arthur Penn
I can never resist a nice alliterative title.
Even without the draw of emotional consonance, I would still have been relieved to revisit the deadly serious world of the West, where men are men and inevitably become corpses, after my foray into Bob Hope's comic version of it. I am also befuddled - I have always had an instinctive dislike for John Wayne's iconic persona and drawling speech, but this is the second of his films that I have seen through my 1001 movies project (the third I have seen, total - I watched "The Quiet Man" while in Ireland several years ago), and I have really loved them both. Even more horrifying to my entrenched opinions: I really enjoyed (ENJOYED!) Wayne's characters in both "Stagecoach" and "Red River." I felt a rush of sympathy in response to the laconic machoness of his dictatorial behavior, quickly followed by a surge of feminist shame.
"Stagecoach" (1939) surprised me with its deliriously exciting stunts shot in majestic locations, but I was really drawn to the highly developed characters who are thrown together by that most equalizing of experiences, frontier travel. This is the tradition that "Deadwood" exploits to the maximum of its televisual potential, the West's ability to throw together characters with nothing in common at the moment of extreme stress. Wayne played the young hero (it was his breakthrough role) and his presence is magnetic. I probably only liked him so much because he said so very little, I said soothingly to myself, and this allowed his impressive physicality to bear the burden of characterization.
Wayne made "Red River" nine years later, and in it he cedes the role of the young hero to Montgomery Clift, taking on instead the more complex character of Clift's adopted father, the tyrannical but basically sympathetic Thomas Dunson, who is torn between his affection for his men and a ruthless survival instinct. This is a densely plotted movie, so densely plotted that it does away with an entire revenge narrative in the first ten minutes. Dunson and his friend Groot (who is well named, but would perhaps have been even better named "Toothless McMumbles") have joined a wagon train heading West, but as they approach Texas Dunson decides that this land is good enough for him and breaks away from the group (I sense social symbolism...). This involves shuffling off (temporarily, he thinks) his beloved, who begs to come with him, but who is clearly not man enough for the dangers of Indian country (he says). She disagrees, and with a surprisingly aggressive sexuality reminds him that it will only be day half the time on his ranch, and the rest of the time is when she could really come in handy. All this argument is in vain, and he demands that she stay with the train, giving her an opportunity to be the first of many many people to say the words "You're wrong" to him.
He and Toothless ride away, only to see a huge fire rise behind them later that day. I think that the moment that John Wayne won me over was his reaction to this sight: he watches the wagon train burn in the distance with a totally still, abstracted face and then says, in a voice charged with practical intensity "Take us hours to get back there." Then he turns his mind to defending himself against the Indians who must be pursuing them from the burning train. After Dunson kills the man who murdered his fiancee, he finds a boy (half mad and ferally defensive) wandering amidst the brush with a cow. He adopts the boy, Matt Garth, and they go on (with Groot) to found a vast cattle empire that becomes totally penniless in the aftermath of the Civil War. Their survival, and the survival of all the hands who work for them, depends on getting these cattle to a railroad farther north, past Indian country and bandits. The rest of the movie follows this drive, tracing the increasing desperation and cruelty of Dunson and the noble conflict of Garth (Clift), who must choose between his affection for his father (who demands absolute loyalty) and his innate sense of what is right.
One of the highlights of film is its brilliant dialogue, which is often rich with subtext and features some of the best crypto-sexual and homoerotic dialogue in a genre that is well known for it. Take this famous encounter about and between Garth and Cherry Valance, his cocky alter ego whose promise as a nemesis is (sadly) never realized:
Groot/Toothless: "You reckon they're gonna fight?"
Dunson: "No, not yet. They'll just paw at each other... find out what they're up against. It'll be worth seeing...
Cherry: (to Matt) "That's a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it?" (He takes it and admires it) "Maybe you'd like to see mine." (He hands over his gun to be admired.) "Nice... awful nice. You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?"
For a long time it looks like the female presence in the film died with Dunson's fiancee, but late in the movie all three key men (Dunson, Matt, and Cherry) become attracted to the strength and vitality of a woman of ambiguous morals named Tess Millay. Some critics complain that Tess shows the pernicious influence of Hollywood on an otherwise grittily realistic movie, but (with the exception of her role in an ending so incongruous it could have come from one of Shakespeare's more improbable romances) I found her to be hypnotic, all sinewy gesture one moment and nervous babble the next. This is a film in which coffee and women hold approximately the same value for the cowboys, but nonetheless Tess is able to take an arrow through the shoulder and still carry on a steely, witty banter with Matt. My only real complaint about the romance plotline is that it seems too rushed and thus not as nuanced as, say, Matt's relationship with Dunson. One moment Matt is sucking the poison from the arrow wound in her shoulder in an astonishingly intimate gesture, and the next she is decking him. Although a superficial justification is given in the film for this glamorous sequence of events, what the film does well it does delicately and deeply, so it feels like something is always missing in their fast-paced relationship. This is by no means a short film, but I could easily have stood for more exploration of this plotline (and of the resolution of the Dunson and Matt narrative, for that matter).
Nonetheless, the characterization (although initially a little overblown) is by far the strong suit of this film, as it was for "Stagecoach." This is the best work I've seen by Montgomery Clift, who always seemed a little blank behind the eyes to me in other films (this was his first). The initial duality between the manly, work-oriented straightforwardness of the day and the sexualized, feminine nighttime that is laid out by Dunson's fiancee continues to work its symbolic magic throughout the film. The daytime, their work, and the constant movement towards their goal soothe the men with a knowledge of their own heroism, but when the sun sets all of their anxieties come to light and their social bonds break down. "It's funny what the night does to a man," Groot remarks. There is one marvelous scene when the men speak entirely about what they are feeling through the objective correlative of the cattle, who are spooked by inactivity and the howling of a nearby coyote. It wouldn't take much to set the cattle off tonight, they say, ...just a single gunshot. And of course, it doesn't even take that - just a cascade of pots and pans set off by a man who can't control the sweet tooth that drives him to steal sugar. Just the normal pursuit of appetite.
dir. Howard Hawks
I have been urged on to greater vigilance in blogging my progress through my 1001 Books and Movies project by the impressive rigor with which other bloggers are attacking and documenting similar campaigns. So, of course, by Film #431 I mean "of the 1001 I Must See before I Die." Today I am having a bit of a western double feature: this afternoon was Bob Hope's spoof of the genre, "The Paleface" (directed by Norman Z. McLeod), and this evening I will embark on "Red River," my third John Wayne experience.
"The Paleface" was, oddly enough, my first experience with a Bob Hope movie (I think. Can this really be true?). And what a profoundly silly movie it was. It opens hopefully, with a fairly faithful echo of the second movie of my 1001 list, "The Great Train Robbery," as Calamity Jane (the voluptuous but totally uncharming Jane Russell) is rescued from jail by the Feds in a mock hold-up. This seems like it might be an interesting plotline, what with the government coverup and possibilities for duplicity, but it is quickly disposed of so that we may move swiftly onward toward the appearance of Bob. Jane is offered clemency for her crimes if she acts as the government's undercover agent in a particularly corrupt corner of the west, where someone is selling guns to the Indians. As camouflage, she agrees to acquire a husband and pose as the harmless, helpless wife, and after her first marital pick shows up dead, she happens by chance on a likely candidate in the form of bumbling dentist Painless Potter, played by Hope (even I will admit that this is a brilliant case of comic naming). As they move farther west, the baddies become convinced that Potter is the agent, and the film unfolds along dual comic lines, as Jane tries to avoid sleeping with her newlywed husband and attempts to convince him that he is a dashing, spittoon-using cowboy hero.
In its time, "The Paleface" was most famous for a hit song, "Buttons and Bows," that Hope casually tosses off while in the wagon train moving west, and despite the unremarkable quality of this piece today, I can't particularly claim that the movie has anything better to offer. Hope takes a Groucho Marx approach to humor, trying 100 jokes all at once in the hope that something will land, or that the audience will be overwhelmed by the comic pacing. I must admit that this is a comic style that has never particularly appealed to me. The satire is not as sharp as it could be, relying strongly on the physical humor of Hope's straightforward mockery of the cowboy persona. Parodically, the film reaches its high point early on, when the intimidated dentist exclaims, "I'm going back east, where men may not be men, but they're not corpses either." Nowhere else does this film deliver that kind of carefully wrought comic aphorism, which mocks both its character and its genre. The western is such a nuanced genre, really, it seems too bad that its comic transformation didn't match it in complexity.
Dir. Norman Z. McLeod
Yesterday afternoon I returned to the fold of Netflix, after my month long banishment in England, with Werner Herzog's "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser." I am rather green when it comes to Werner H., having only recently made my first acquaintance with him (as so many did) with the intriguing and finely-wrought "Grizzly Man." Little birds have told me that Herzog is a man of strong preoccupations, whose work is perhaps best seen as one long oeuvre return again and again to the same metaphysical themes. Indeed it is possible to see this tendency after my minimal exposure to him, and to do that sloppy thing I am increasingly guilty of: making a pattern of two.
Both films, for instance, take as their central concern men who feel alienated from human society, distrustful of and dissatisfied by the rewards of civilization. In "Grizzly Man" this becomes a tale of withdrawal: the environmentalist Timothy Treadwell retreats with increasing paranoia from the human world in which he was raised, into what he believes to be the harsh but honest world of the bears of Alaska, one of whom will ultimately kill and eat him. "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" follows the same archetypal path of sacrifice and martyrdom, but in some sense it pursues its interest in the protagonist who dwells on the outskirts of civilization while following an inverted trajectory. Instead of withdrawal, this becomes a tale of unsuccessful integration into society, of a conscious, chosen failure to learn the values of civilization.
"Kaspar Hauser" is a reworking (a remarkably faithful and inclusive one) of an odd piece of German history. In 1828, a young man appeared in the centre of Nurnberg, unable to walk comfortable or to speak any words apart from "I want to be a pretty rider like my father." When given pen and paper, he is able to sign his name: Kaspar Hauser. A note on his person says that he wants to join the cavalry, and while the civic authorities decide what to do with him he is kept in a tower for vagabonds and vagrants. As he learns more of the language and customs of those he lives among, he is eventually taken up by a series of intellectuals as something between a friend and an object of study. One day, he is attacked by a mysterious assailant, and though he survives this attack, he is later mortally wounded in another assault.
For Herzog, this becomes the perfect platform for an exploration of the emptiness of civilization and its unquestioned routines: Kaspar, unlike most of us, is indoctrinated into these values and behaviors while a fully self-conscious, critical adult, capable of abstract thinking that is both more direct that academic logic and too sophisticated for an unquestioning acceptance of new rules. The "intelligent men" who surround Kaspar are repeatedly reduced to sputtering defensiveness by his commonsense rejoinders to their lessons and lectures: "Kaspar," they cry, "That just isn't true!" But they are unable to provide him with any concrete proof that it is false.
Kaspar's eccentric thought processes form the most rewarding aspects of the film. His language is densely poetic, and often resonates with metaphor-- the difficulty in putting together even the simplest sentence means that he chooses words with an astute eye for how great a weight a meaning they must carry. One example (sadly paraphrased from memory): in a prescient echo of the real Timothy Treadwell, who often describes his disgust at the callous behavior of humans in "Grizzly Man," Kaspar tells his friend and tutor, "These people are as wolves to me." And, although for the most part we see only the "kindest" behavior from the Germans who surround Kaspar, we can't help but agree: like Treadwell's bears, these people may have social network, but they also have the primal drive towards self-preservation and self-aggrandizement of the wild. And Kaspar, the "wild child," seems to lack this drive entirely.
The other rich consequence of Kaspar's "uncivilized" thought processes is his tendency to think in visions, dreams, and highly symbolic images. He has odd epiphanies about distant, wild landscapes over which helpless herds of people move and toil to no valuable end, and to him these visions are clearly more pressing and more real than paltry questions about his quotidian life (even the questions of where he came from and who is attacking him). Both he and Herzog traffic in allegory (as the original German title of the film, "Jeder fur sich und Gott gegen alle / Every Man for Himself and God Against All," makes clear), and like most allegories, "Kaspar Hauser" uses archetypal forms to rip the film of "reality" off our everyday lives. In medieval and Renaissance allegory, this would have revealed a Platonic world of ideal forms, a landscape of salvation rather than of fallenness. When Kaspar sees a vision of people, whole swarms of Sisyphuses, dragging themselves and their lives up a neverending hill with nothing at its summit, there is no landscape except for the fallen one: the allegory falls away and leaves only emptiness. At the beginning of the film we are given a rolling field of grain and swelling music. Well trained by Hollywood, our hearts swell in response, and then we see Herzog's epigraph (taken from Lenz?), and the emptiness yawns: "Don't you hear that horrible screaming all round you? That screaming men call silence?"
Throughout the film, Kaspar tries to tell a story, and until he is on his deathbed he is dissuaded from the telling because he admits that he doesn't know the ending. Endings, his housekeeper and tutor sternly tell him, are of the most vital importance. Civilization depends on containment, so all narratives must be walled round by clear beginnings and good endings. Kaspar defies all attempts at containment. It is perhaps in the service of making his own ending as meaningful as possible that they final allow him to tell the tale after he has been mortally stabbed by the unknown assailant. The oddity of the tale, it turns out, is that it seems to be complete: it certainly has a beginning, a middle, and an end as we would conventionally imagine them, except that Kaspar doesn't believe the story to be over. So in fact we find that stories without endings are in fact made up of a series of conclusions: all our lives are, in a way, nothing but endings.
Of course, the same can be said about beginnings, but that would be a bit cloying, wouldn't it?
"The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser"
dir. Werner Herzog
***1/2 (because it was in fact, more interesting to ponder than to watch, although it was extremely interesting to ponder)